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NWU: Covid-19 has not changed law for employees, despite what the ‘new normalisers’ say

“[…] Over the past few months the ‘new normalisers’ have been busy ‘new normalising’ by cutting pay, cutting hours, sometimes cutting pay AND hours at the same time, dismissing workers (sorry, letting associates go) and laying off ‘associates’ with no pay and restructuring…”

The following column, which urges employees to stand up for their rights despite the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, was penned by Dave Smith of the National Workers Union (NWU):

Photo: An employee is ‘let go’ by his boss.

Employers have been playing with euphemisms in the English language for years in order to confuse, hide and blur what they are really up to. They don’t make you redundant or dismiss you. Oh no, that’s far too harsh and unpleasant. They ‘let you go’.

The National Workers Union (NWU) has done a quick poll of those who have been ‘let go’ and found that only parrots are really happy when you ‘let them go’.

Some employers stopped employing workers a long time ago. Now we are ‘associates’ who are part of the ‘company’s family’. But that doesn’t stop them ‘letting you go’ when they want to.

American Airlines is an example of an employer who no longer issues warning letters. Now they are ‘advisories’. But don’t get too confused. They still ‘let you go’ when they’ve run out of ‘advisories’.

The latest linguistic distortion is the ‘new normal’. Confused? Don’t be!

The Workers of the World Dictionary describes ‘new normal’ as being a situation where the employers have moved the goal posts and you have to accept these new arrangements as if they are normal. Simple really.

Over the past few months the ‘new normalisers’ have been busy ‘new normalising’ by cutting pay, cutting hours, sometimes cutting pay and hours at the same time, dismissing workers (sorry, letting associates go) and laying off ‘associates’ with no pay and restructuring.

Image: A satirical take on employment termination.
(Copyright Mark Anderson)

Before we get distracted by this ‘we’re all in it together’ stuff, let’s take a step back and see what’s ‘new’ about all of this. Let’s put this into some proper perspective.

The employment relationship is fundamentally unequal and always has been. It is the employer who decides who and when to employ, how and when to dismiss, when to reorganise and make workers redundant.

The balance of power in the employment relationship is tilted firmly in the employers’ favour. Traditionally, the workers’ response has been to organise.

Instinctively we know that when we say to an employer ‘we’ want this or ‘we’ won’t accept that, we are much stronger than one person saying: please sir, if you wouldn’t mind; and if it’s not too much of an inconvenience…

The ‘we’ implies a threat that if ‘we’ don’t get what ‘we’ want then ‘we’ have the potential to do something about it—providing we stick together, that is. Remember all that ‘unity is strength’ stuff these old trade union people talked about?

Photo: TTUTA leads teachers on a demonstration.

Now here’s the rub. In T&T, only between 15% to 20% (if so much) of workers are covered by Union Collective Agreements.

The balance of these non-organised workers have to rely for their protection on what might be provided by the law or case law developed in the Industrial Court. But let us have no illusions about labour laws, they are not neutral.

Laws are passed in response to social pressures and the balance of class forces that are prevalent at the time, whether in response to changing social attitudes to issues such as abortion or gays rights or pressure from the streets.

A classic example of pressure from the streets are the demands being put on the capitalist class in America by the Black Lives Matter movement—demands which have now extended well beyond the immediate issue of the murder of George Floyd. That is the sort of social pressure it takes to generate real changes in society.

If you look at the Industrial Relations Act, a product of the events of the 1970s, whilst its primary objective was always to restrain and constrain workers’ ability to take industrial action in defence of their interests, some concessions had to be built in to recognise the strength of the unions at the time. Interestingly, those very concessions are now the target of the employers’ anti-union agenda.

Image: A satirical take on the relationship between businesses and unions.
(Copyright Carol Simpson)

While there are limitations in all labour laws, after all they are a reflection of the struggle at the time, they are what we have. Workers have always learnt to fight on as many fronts as possible and even if the laws do not provide all the protection they should, we still need to extract what we can from them.

We need to remind ourselves that Covid-19 does not change the law.

What is happening is that employers have rearranged the employment relationship in their heads and are carrying on as if contracts of employment and the law no longer apply. Employers are trying to create a ‘new normal’ by tearing up contracts and ignoring the law.

The truth of the matter is that they will get away with it if there is no resistance.

We have to take the position that there is no ‘new normal’. Our starting point is that the ‘old normal’ continues until there are discussions and negotiations about changes.

And workers need to learn the lesson that they must get organised.

“Divided we beg, united we bargain” is not just a slogan from history; it describes the reality of the employment relationship today, tomorrow and every day.

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